DWI Deaths: Is It Murder?

<b>Bob Simon</b> On One Prosecutor's Efforts To Increase Penalties For Drunk Drivers Who Kill

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This story was first published on Jan. 4, 2009. It was updated on July 31, 2009.

Drunk driving kills more than 13,000 Americans a year - that's one every 39 minutes. Authorities call it an epidemic. They say that despite all the publicity, all the education campaigns, and all the advertising over the past decade, the number of drunk-driving fatalities has not gone down.

Some prosecutors have started taking a different approach to the problem, getting so tough on drunk drivers who kill people that the penalties they exact were unheard of in the past.

As 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reported earlier this year, one of these pioneers is Kathleen Rice, district attorney of Nassau County, New York. She believes that if you want to stop drunk driving, you have to treat it as a serious crime with serious jail time. Our story begins, however, not in a courtroom but at a wedding in Nassau County - a wedding and the tragic loss of a 7-year-old girl.

Her name was Katie. She and her little sister - the Flynn girls - were flower girls at their aunt's wedding on July 1, 2005. It was a glorious day for the Flynn family, including Katie's parents Jennifer and Neil.

"It was a great day. It was a beautiful wedding. It was a fun time all day long and it couldn't have turned out worse," Neil remembers.

The family had hired a limo to take them home from the wedding so they could dance and party with no worries. But as they were being driven home on a parkway on Long Island, a pickup truck came barreling straight at them in the wrong direction. Chris and Denise Tangney, Katie's grandparents, saw the truck coming from the back of the limo.

"I saw this light come towards me. And I had to think for a second of what that was, 'cause that, it was just out of place," Denise remembers. "I watched this single light come toward me and all of a sudden it went from a single light to a double light. It happened so quickly I remember saying, 'Oh my God, we're gonna get hit.'"

They got hit with incredible force. Both cars were totally destroyed, but that was the least of it. Stanley Rabinowitz, the limo driver, was killed instantly. The limousine was so mangled that members of the Flynn family had to be cut out of the wreckage. Virtually everyone suffered severe, life-threatening injuries, and then there was Katie.

"The first thing I heard was my wife screaming, 'Neil, Katie's dead,'" Katie father's Neil remembers. "And I kept saying, 'No she can't be dead. She's just gotta be hurt real bad.' But I didn't know what Jen was looking at, what Jen saw."

"I reached for Kate and she was on the floor. And all that was left of Kate Marie was her head, that I was able to take," she remembers.

Martin Heidgen, a 24-year-old insurance salesman, was driving the pickup truck. He suffered minor injuries. He had a blood alcohol content over three times the legal limit. On the night of the Flynns' wedding, Heidgen was drinking at a friend's party in a house on Long Island. His friends told him not to drive. He did anyway, driving for about three miles the wrong way on the parkway before slamming into the Flynns' limousine and tearing their lives apart.

"The sadness and despair that is with me every day, I can't even put into words," Jennifer says.

"I relive the crash. I think about it every day. I have nightmares about it every night. And I live my life without my daughter because of it," Neil adds.